On Throwing Stones in Houses of Glass
Moscow, Constantinople, and Autocephaly

by Fr. Bohdan Hladio | българскиΕλληνικά | Русский  |  Српски

Much breath and ink continues to be spent castigating the Patriarchate of Constantinople for its “uncanonical” bestowal of autocephaly upon the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU).  Characteristic are the words of newly-elected Patriarch Porfirije of Serbia:

“The actions of Constantinople in Ukraine are not in accordance with the tradition of the Church. We are on the side of order and canon,” . . . He also added that “Many are going to say that we [the Serbian Orthodox Church] are on the Russian side. But we are on the side of orders and canons.”

Such all-too-common statements ignore the fact “that concerning. . .the manner of establishing the autocephaly of any part of the Church, none of the sacred canons provides direction or inkling.”[1] Statements such as those of the Patriarch beg the questions “Which canons? Whose order?”

It is generally accepted that in order to achieve autocephaly, a Church must be “mature” and possess sufficient “resources” (i.e., an adequate number of bishops, dioceses, and faithful) to organize and maintain its own ecclesiastical life; there must be a desire on the part of the people/Church of a particular territory to be autocephalous; and the “Mother Church” (the autocephalous Church within whose territory the “Daughter Church” finds itself) must be in agreement. Autocephaly is then recognized with the bestowal of a Tomos by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and recognition by all other autocephalous Churches.

A constructive discussion of Ukrainian autocephaly is impossible without considering the anomalous autocephalies unilaterally proclaimed by the Moscow Patriarchate in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and “America.” 

As to Ukraine, following the unification Sobor (15.12.18) and bestowal of autocephaly (06.02.19) upon the OCU, accusations were leveled against the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) by the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) claiming that Constantinople had violated Moscow’s “canonical territory”; that the EP had bestowed autocephaly on “schismatic bodies”; and that it had ignored the “canonical” Church, i.e., the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” within the jurisdiction of Moscow (the “UOC-MP”). From the perspective of the EP these claims were clearly spurious: the act which had transferred the oversight of the Kyivan Metropolia to the MP in 1686 had been annulled by the EP in September of 2018; the “schismatic bodies,” i.e. the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate, had ceased to exist by virtue of their self-liquidation prior to the unification Sobor; and letters of invitation had been sent by the EP to all hierarchs of the UOC-MP, whose leader, Metropolitan Onuphrij, was the only primate of the three Orthodox bodies whose candidacy to head the new autocephalous Church was deemed acceptable by the EP. In addition, the MP had made no progress towards healing the decades-long schism in Ukraine. Moscow’s accusations against the EP, given its own history of using autocephaly as a political tool in the 20th century, appeared especially disingenuous. 

Following Stalin’s rapprochement with the MP in 1943, communist authorities encouraged the Moscow Patriarchate to assume a leadership role within world Orthodoxy by creating an “Orthodox Vatican” and organizing an “8th Ecumenical Council” (see chapters 8 and 9 of The Russian Orthodox Church 1917 – 1948, From decline to resurrection by Daniela Kalkandjieva). After WWII the MP forced the Polish Church to renounce the autocephaly which the EP had granted it in 1924. Due to post-war border settlements the majority of the territory and faithful of the Polish Orthodox Church ended up in the Soviet Union,  and so the Church was left with only two dioceses, clearly insufficient “resources” for autocephalic status. Notwithstanding this anomalous situation, the MP in 1948 (re)granted autocephaly to the Polish Church.

Leaving aside scattered communities in its eastern regions, the Orthodox Church in Czechoslovakia had been founded under the aegis of the Serbian Patriarchate from parishes and clergy which had left the Roman Catholic Church. Following WWII the (numerically much larger) Greek-Catholic (“uniate”) Church in Czechoslovakia was liquidated by the communist authorities, and its churches and institutions were transferred to the Czechoslovak Orthodox Church. Upon Moscow’s “request,” the Serbian Church transferred its canonical territory (including the Mukachevo diocese, which by this time had been incorporated into the Soviet Union itself) to the MP, which, in 1951, unilaterally proclaimed the Czechoslovak Church autocephalous.

The proclamation of the OCA’s autocephaly followed a similar course. The “Metropolia” (as the OCA was known before 1970) was a thorn in the side of the MP, who had not been able to infiltrate or control it, and the MP’s “exarchate” in North America was a financial and political liability. When, in the late 1960’s, the Metropolia attempted to seek canonical recognition from the EP, Moscow decided that the best course of action would be to proclaim the Metropolia autocephalous, whereby the OCA would receive the canonical legitimacy it sought, while the MP would presumably gain greater influence within it as its “Mother Church.”

Where Poland’s autocephaly was irregular in that the Church did not possess the requisite number of dioceses, diocesan bishops, etc. to “qualify” for autocephaly, and Czechoslovakia’s autocephaly required the “transfer” of Serbia’s canonical territory to Moscow so that Moscow could become the “Mother Church,” autocephaly for “America” was bestowed upon one jurisdiction among many rather than upon all the Orthodox Christians of “America”—each Church anomalously autocephalous in its own way.

All this raises several questions:

Given the fact that Constantinople is undeniably the Mother Church of the Kyivan Metropolia as it was for the Churches of Serbia, Romania, Greece, etc.; that when the Balkan countries established their own statehood their Churches received autocephaly from Constantinople; that Ukraine’s statehood was re-established in 1991 and by the mid-teens of this century the majority of her Orthodox faithful clearly desired their own autocephalous Church, how can Constantinople’s actions in Ukraine be described as “uncanonical” or “against Church order,” especially by those whose churches received their own autocephaly in exactly the same way?

The corollary is also important: how can Moscow, given its own history of the instrumental use of autocephaly, bring itself, and bring pressure on others, to condemn the actions of Constantinople in Ukraine? 

Even more troubling is the fact that when Moscow unilaterally, with no canonical prerogative to do so, bestowed autocephaly upon Churches in “canonical territories” over which it had only the most tenuous and controverted of claims Constantinople did not break communion with the MP, the MP took the radical step of breaking communion with Constantinople after it had bestowed autocephaly upon the OCU in the same “traditional” manner it had bestowed autocephaly upon all the “modern” autocephalous Churches. Why?

The autocephalic status of the Churches of Poland and Czechoslovakia was, in time, resolved. The autocephalic status of both the OCA and the OCU is still contested although, paradoxically, while the canonicity of the OCA is universally recognized, Churches and hierarchs within Moscow’s sphere of influence (pace Patriarch Porfirije) still refuse to concelebrate with the clergy of the OCU.

Cyril Hovorun notes that “Autocephaly survived many transformations and crises. . . In some periods of its history it almost vanished, and in some it gained an extreme power. It took different forms and interpretations during its long historical journey” (Scaffolds of the Church, 88-89). Perhaps the most important question in this whole controversy is “how might the concept of autocephaly be ‘transformed and interpreted’ in order to become a unifying, rather than dividing, factor in a globalized world?”


[1] Patriarch Benjamin of Constantinople, as cited by Peter L’Huillier, in “Accession to Autocephaly.” St. Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly 37, no.4 (1993): 298. 


Fr. Bohdan Hladio is a priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, currently serving in Oshawa, Ontario.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.